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Paddy Compass Namatbara

Paddy Compass Namatbara

1890 - 1973

Nabadbara, Namadbara, Nobadbara

Paddy Compass Namatbara began painting at the Methodist mission at Minjilang (Croker Island) from its very inception in 1941. The centre was a melting pot of tribal groupings, and though Paddy, then in his early fifties, was not of the dominant Kunwinjku people, he became part of a dynamic group of artists, which by the late 1950’s included Yirawala, Midjaw Midjaw and Nangunyari Namiridali. These artists found that the Methodist mission on Croker Island allowed them a greater degree of artistic freedom in comparison to the mission at Oenpelli. Painting through the 1960's, the group came to the forefront of modern bark painting, in part, due to their close alliance with a number of visiting anthropologists and regular visits by Dorothy Bennett and others who collected barks for sale. Karel Kupa came to Minjilang in 1963, following in the footsteps of anthropologists Charles Mountford and Ron and Catherine Berndt, who had visited in 1948 and 1949. Kupa’s presence impacted upon the artists chosen style and subject matter, particularly in the depiction of themes of sorcery, previously suppressed by the mission. Paddy produced rare images of Mimih and spirit figures imbued with the physical deformations, transferred to the intended victim, when accompanied by songs and ceremony. Alongside, this darker connotation, sorcery spirits are also highly imbued with sexual tension and humour, as ‘Kunwinjku relate tales of their ribald exploits' (Taylor 2004: 118). In Paddy’s Spirit Figures c.1960 he depicts a male figure with a sub-incised member of huge proportion, leering towards the protruding genitals of the female figure adorned with pubic hair. It is a work of playful lust, the sexual energy only heightened by the artist’s ability to imbue the image with a sense of rhythmic movement through the depiction of its stringy undulating figures. It is the dynamic energy of Paddy Compass’s paintings that set his works apart from that of his fellow painters. In contrast Midjaw Midjaw preferred symmetry and Namiridali bold black and white bands across figures standing static in nature. The group however, shared many stylistic conventions primarily derived from the tradition of rock painting, where sorcery figures originated amongst the secluded rock escarpments of Western Arnhem Land’s stone country. Common characteristic’s of rock painting found in Paddy’s work includes the coarsely applied white paint in silhouette, adorned with bold dots or crosshatching. The background in his works invariably remains plain and unadorned other than the occasional red ochre wash rubbed into the barks surface. His works created in an X-ray style are also closely affiliated with rock painting and part of a key movement in Western Arnhem Land bark painting. By revealing the interior of human and animal forms Western Arnhem Land artists could convey and exchange bodies of knowledge and demonstrate how animals were divided according to ritual and social obligation. This applied particularly to hunting and increase rituals. While Paddy and others depicted many totemic animals prized by hunters, the vast majority of rock paintings are of fish. They indicate the different parts of the fish that were most prized and comprise a visual iconography that artists developed as a symbolic aid in dividing the sections of the animal correctly. Paddy’s early work, Saratoga 1947, is a prime example. In this and his other works Paddy displayed the diverse functions that artistic practice plays in Western Arnhem Land culture, ranging all the way from comical relief to scientific instruction. The public’s growing recognition of this diversity in purpose and sentiment has transformed the perspective with which they view Indigenous art. The humanistic sentiment of these quirky lustful figures provides a medium in which the outside viewer can relate to the artist, despite the vast gulf in cultural understanding between them. It is as if sexuality and its incumbent awkward humour can transcend culture, for it strikes at the very base of what it is to be human.  By seeing a shared humanity in the paintings of Paddy Compass Namatbara, outside audiences could come to terms with the personal imprint within the work, transforming it from a relic of an ancient culture into something alive and of the moment.  

Other than ethnographic enthusiasts familiar with the Ruhe and Louis Allan collections or lucky enough to have seen the works in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, the wider audience for contemporary Aboriginal art would have been largely unaware of Paddy’s Compass’s paintings until a series of eight barks were included in the Crossing Country exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2004. All were of Mimih spirits up to kinky business. The following year on the secondary market, a work of similar sentiment Spirit Figures c.1960, sold for $33 400, at Sotheby's in July for a figure some six times its sale price of $5,175 in 2000. This record price is still well above the $19,200 achieved by Sotheby’s in July 2007 for Maam (Malignant Spirit) c.1960 despite this work selling above its high estimate. There is however a big drop to his next record and those thereafter. The next highest result was achieved at Sotheby’s in 2010 with the sale of Death of Kundaagi selling for $9,600. The absence of a gradual rise in sales between 2000 and 2005 can, however, be attributed to a lack of work in his signature style on offer. While the differentiation between the two styles is a compelling explanation, Sotheby’s, which has sold 14 of the 16 works to date, have shown some inconsistency in their attribution and estimates.  When a 46 x 135 cm bark of a Saratoga fish was first offered for sale in 2002 it was given the very specific date of 1947 yet it failed to attract interest when carrying a presale estimate of  $7,000-10,000 (Lot 284). In July 2007 it appeared once more at Sotheby’s estimated at $3,000-4,000 (Lot 239). Now titled Saratoga c.1960 it sold just below the high estimate for $3,840. The market preference for spirit figures and sorcery images with overt sexual overtones is due to a number of factors. This includes their scarcity, due to attempts by certain missions to curb such subject matter. But also, and perhaps more importantly in the context of artistic developments amongst Western Arnhem Land bark painting, the history of bark painting is marked by a trajectory from figuration to increasing abstraction. This has found its current climax in the works of Kunwinjku artist John Mawurndjul, who abandons the figurative all but completely. In recent years the art world has rewarded the intricate visions of Mawurndjul with unparalleled praise. Yet, in what at first seems to be a paradox, works by Paddy Compass and Yirawala receive applause precisely for their direct contrast to these abstracted visions. In the animated energy of their spirit beings we can see the origins of what has followed, and delight in the fruits of a fascinating dynamic and evolving culture.

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